The Horrible, Beautiful Sound Of Annihilation

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Natalie Portman in Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018), by Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Before Alex Garland’s mysterious new sci-fi film Annihilation came out this weekend, many people had fixated on a very particular detail in the film’s original trailer.

It was four notes.

People in the comments underneath the trailer called it “the sound,” or “the effect,” but it really is just a melody: four notes that for some reason people have been responding to in funny and curious ways. Co-composer Ben Salisbury was even interviewed about the unnerving melody, and he said that it was the only part of the original soundtrack that made it into the trailer.

On the full soundtrack you can hear that it is actually seven notes – a four note melody, a pause, and an unnaturally low, three note response. The full track in particular is weirdly affecting, especially in the theater: the vibration of monolithic bass, the shimmering synth – and those ponderous, tumbling notes of distorted alien brass. It’s less like a song and more like a melody falling into a void. When pressed about what to call this particular motif, Salisbury called it “the demon opera theme.” It is a fittingly hypnotic motif for a movie that is designed to make us question everything.


Annihilation is based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, and its main subject is Lena, a biologist and professor played by Natalie Portman. She is intelligent and resolute, but she is haunted by the specter of tragedy following the disappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who disappeared during a classified military mission 12 months ago. That is, until the day he returns quite suddenly, and doesn’t remember a thing about the mission or how he got back.

As it turns out, he was one part of a team that went into an inexplicable natural phenomenon that has been deemed “The Shimmer.” No one who has gone into The Shimmer has returned, until Kane, and he goes violently into a coma shortly after. A five-woman team is assembled to head into The Shimmer: a biologist (Natalie Portman), a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), and an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny). Where trained soldiers have failed, the government hopes that a team of scientists might succeed.

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The female-centric cast of Annihilation has received backlash from sexist male moviegoers clinging to misogynist tradition. Source: Annihilation (2018) by Paramount Studios and Skydance.

Annihilation’s writer and director Alex Garland is best known for his 2014 sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, which he also wrote and directed. He also wrote the screenplay for 28 Days Later, Dredd, and Sunshine, as well as the novel The Beach (Danny Boyle directed the film adaptation). Garland has expressed disappointment over the fact that his newest film will only make it into theaters in three countries – China, Canada and the U.S.A. Less than stellar test screenings and some creative differences with the executive producer have led to the film skipping most international theaters on its way to streaming on Netflix, a way for distributor Paramount to hedge its bets on a movie it thinks too strange and “complicated” for audiences. This is a real shame considering Annihilation is a film best seen and heard on the big screen.

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The dangers faced by the women in Annihilation are as profoundly psychological as they are terrifyingly physical. Source: Annihilation (2018) by Paramount Studios and Skydance.

The fact that Garland and his producer Scott Rudin won this creative battle through final cut rights is good news for moviegoers, because here is that “originality” that so many movie fans have mourned as dead in Hollywood. This part horror, part sci-fi thriller is as ambitious as it is beautiful, both narratively and visually. It spends the main part of its runtime raising questions that seem unanswerable, yet manages somehow to answer just the right amount of those questions while leaving enough mystery to haunt you after it is over.

There is a probing curiosity at the heart of this film, one which makes us think in surprising ways about genetics, human psychology and our place in the universe. Its increasingly surreal world is like a beautiful and horrific Alice in Wonderland – its obscene beauty gnaws away at our sense of comfort and normalcy through patient pacing, incredible art design and that powerful original score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The score itself uses space and minimalism in a way that enhances the dreamlike story, until the film’s breathless final act demands something powerful and floor-shaking.

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Director and writer Alex Garland says he purposefully did not re-read the film’s source material, to make the movie feel “like a dream of the book.” Source: Annihilation (2018) by Paramount Studios and Skydance.

Studies have shown that music can change the way we perceive the world, and I can’t help but think of this as I hum that four note phrase again, days after I watched this film. There is something parasitic about the motif, as if my own moods and perceptions are being subtly refracted, even if I’m not always aware of it. This shifting of perceptions is the power of film as well as music, and in this case the two come together to make something strange and thought-provoking and memorable.

Some movies are fun to watch but don’t hold up well to closer examination (see Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and then there are movies like this one. They leave you feeling challenged and bewildered, but their impact persists and even grows after the film is over. Ex Machina had the same lingering aftereffects – the sign of a film not content to rest on entertainment value alone. Leaving the theater after Annihilation I felt a bit like Natalie Portman’s Lena: I wasn’t sure what just happened, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t the same.